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Katherine Legge, Sheena Monk renew connection with fateful call at Gradient Racing

Katherine Legge Sheena Monk

LAT Images

(Editor’s note: One in a series of Motorsports Talk stories focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

A critical phone call and two serious crashes helped form a foundation for two women who have teamed up in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship this season.

Sheena Monk, who was trying to move into the premier sports car series, was facing an uncertain 2023 racing season late last year when she happened to give Katherine Legge a ring about something unrelated to her career future.

“We just got to talking and ideas started going back and forth, and we were like, ‘Hey, let’s make a few phone calls and see what we can come up with,’ ” Monk told NBC Sports in a January interview before the Rolex 24 at Daytona. “And before you know it, we ended up with this Acura NSX GT3 program.”

TWELVE HOURS OF SEBRING: Details, schedules, information for watching Saturday’s race

Legge’s longstanding relationship with Acura – she was a part of its first NSX GT win at Detroit in 2017 – helped nail down a ride with Gradient Racing, which announced the deal in early January for the JG Wentworth-backed No. 66 Honda Performance Development Acura NSX GT3 Evo22.

“Sheena she mentioned what she was trying to do, and I said the NSX would be a great place for her to enter” IMSA’s top level, Legge told NBC Sports. “We started talking, and the only team that considered it was Gradient, so I reached out to them and HPD and tried to put something together.

“I think it’s been a whirlwind, but it’s exciting for Sheena for me. It’s a car I know and developed. It’s better than I remember it.”

Screenshot from Assetto Corsa

Screenshot from Assetto Corsa

Monk and Legge also have familiarity with each other that dates back several years. Legge was a driver coach for Monk when she broke nine bones (primarily ribs and pelvic fractures) from a vicious head-on wreck in the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca Raceway during a Lamborghini Super Trofeo race in September 2018.

“I remember being in the hospital just a few hours later, and my brother said, ‘Do you think you’re going to go back to racing?’ ” Monk recalled. “I was still very, very new. Under a year in my career. I immediately said, ‘No.’ I thought I was done at that point. As soon as it came out of my mouth, I knew it wasn’t going to sit right with me, and I needed to persevere and come back. I think it’s just built a lot of character. I didn’t want to walk away from the sport and didn’t want to leave it on that note. So I just kept pushing, and I’ve been climbing the latter steadily ever since.”

IMSA Weathertech Roar Before the 24 2023

IMSA Weathertech Roar Before the 24 2023

Halston Pitman

Monk recovered to win a Michelin Pilot race less than two years later at Road America – just a few weeks after Legge was hospitalized with a broken leg and wrist from a testing crash at Circuit Paul Ricard in France.

“Katherine was there for my very first IMSA race just a few months prior to the crash at Laguna,” Monk said. “So she endured that entire situation with me. She wasn’t coaching me for a short period of time, but then she had her accident in France, and I reached out to her just to say, ‘I hope you’re doing well, and if you need anything, let me know.’

“We sort of did bond at the time over what it’s like to come back. And just that you have to be patient and listen to your body. So I would absolutely say that it’s something that we both can very much relate.”

They also are relatable of course through their gender in a sport that remains mostly male-dominated despite a growing number of female faces in garages and paddocks everywhere.

Legge, who was recently announced in a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing entry for the Indy 500, has been teamed with women before (notably past champion Christina Nielsen) as a versatile veteran of sports cars, Champ Car, IndyCar and NASCAR. She was planning to race the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2020 with an all-female team before her crash.

But neither she nor Monk views their pairing at Gradient as being about carrying the banner for women in racing.

“A while ago, I started down this path of championing women drivers,” Legge said. “I don’t want it to be a gimmick. Sometimes it’s taken as a gimmick, and I really don’t want it to be. We should be taken seriously in our own right. I do believe I’m one of the best drivers on the grid regardless of gender, race, of anything

IMSA Weathertech Roar Before the 24 2023

Katherine Legge at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 (Gradient Racing)

Halston Pitman

“I think that it was pure coincidence that Sheena and I teamed up. Having said that. I think it’s important to show other young girls that they can do it, too. And I think having both of us in the same car has a greater presence. And a greater story. And so it’s important to me that we showcase female talent in an environment where it’s not gimmicky. It’s literally just us going out there, racing the guys in one of the only sports in the world you can compete against the guys. Doing our thing and proving our worth and being taken seriously like any other race car driver would.

“I’m pretty much part of the furniture at this point because I’ve been doing it for so long. Sheena is trying to make a name for herself. The fact we’re doing it together I think is only a thing for the people on the periphery of racing or the fans on the outside world. Then it’s a story and it’s cool. You get young girls come up to you, young boys, too, and say how much they support our car, and it’s really neat they want our autograph and want to be race car drivers when they grow up. So it has a greater impact, which I love. And hopefully it can be our legacy.”

Said Monk: “I don’t look at driving with Katherine as different from anyone else. I lean on her for her experience. I think her gender doesn’t play a role in this. It’s somebody I look up to in the way that they’ve driven and navigated their career and been successful in all forms of motorsport that they’ve participated in, so I don’t really feel any pressure. If anything, I look at this very much as a privilege. And I’m happy to learn from her and suck up all the information that I can.”

The Gradient Racing Acura finished fourth in the GTD class at the Rolex 24 season opener. After just missing the podium at Daytona (where a late refueling incident precluded optimum strategy), Legge and Monk will team with Marc Miller in Saturday’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

The Austin-Texas-based team was able to test last month at Sebring, allowing its new lineup to build cohesion for the difficult endurance race.

“We made strong progress during February testing to set us up for another great result,” Monk said in a team release. “Katherine and I are continuing to strengthen our already solid bond, which will be important throughout the duration of the season and Marc has proven to be the ace we need during these longer rounds.”

The Gradient Racing car was able to rebound from a shunt during the third practice session Saturday night.

Just as at Daytona, the GTD field will include another car with multiple women behind the wheel in the Lamborghini of Iron Dames (a female-dominated team).

“I think women in racing in general has taken a massive leap forward in the last three to five years,” Legge said. “Before that, there was just the odd one or two of us. To this day, there’s only three gold female drivers in the world (according to the FIA ratings). So it’s not to the point we want it to be yet, but it’s gaining more traction, and the fact there is other girls on the grid is a testament to how far the sport has come. Because for a decade I was the only one. And now there’s a handful of us.

“Hopefully that continues to grow because as I’ve said 100 times before, the car doesn’t know the difference. It’s literally the only sport where we can compete on a level playing field with no disadvantages.”